Last week’s official dedication of the National Ignition Facility, the massive experiment in nuclear fusion, has set some physicists to plotting ways in which nuclear fusion could be put to work in a new generation of nuclear power plants. Although doubters say that NIF may not even be able to produce a controlled fusion reaction, the same reaction that occurs in the heart of the sun and in thermonuclear weapons, boosters such as U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu are already discussing how fusion energy could best be harnessed.
Chu notes that the Obama administration’s decision to halt construction of the Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste has renewed interest in reactors that could actually reduce the nuclear waste produced by traditional nuclear power plants. There are “a resurgence of hybrid solutions of fusion fission where the fusion would impart not only energy, but again creates high-energy neutrons that can burn down the long-lived actinides” [Technology Review], says Chu. Actinides are a group of radioactive chemical elements, including plutonium and uranium, which compose some of the radioactive waste from traditional fission reactors.
In a blow to the nuclear power industry, the budget released by President Obama last week eliminates most funding for Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site that for decades has been proposed for the permanent burial of radioactive nuclear waste.
The decision will likely be an expensive one, considering how much money the federal government might end up owing the utility industry, and how much—up to $10.4 billion—has already been spent and will have been wasted on the search for a nuclear waste repository since 1983. The courts have already awarded the companies about $1 billion, because the government signed contracts obligating it to begin taking the waste in 1998, but seems unlikely to do so for years. The nuclear industry says it may demand the return of the $22 billion that it has paid to the Energy Department to establish a repository, but that the government has not yet spent [The New York Times].
The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act called for the establishment of a permanent, high-level nuclear waste repository. Eight proposed sites were narrowed to three, then to one. Over the strong objections of Nevada’s congressional delegation – and controversy over flawed studies – Congress voted in 1987 to approve Yucca Mountain as the sole candidate for a permanent nuclear waste repository. In 2002, President Bush designated Yucca Mountain as the site, and in June 2008, the Department of Energy submitted its license application [Christian Science Monitor].
President-elect Barack Obama has thrilled the scientific community with the leaked news that he plans to nominate a Nobel Prize-winning physicist with a passion for green technology for the post of energy secretary. The likely nominee, Steven Chu, currently heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and shared the Nobel in physics in 1997 for developing a method to cool and trap atoms.
Recently, however, Chu’s interests have shifted away from particle physics and towards finding scientific solutions for global warming. In an interview last year, Chu said he began to turn his attention to energy and climate change several years ago. “I was following it just as a citizen and getting increasingly alarmed,” he said. “Many of our best basic scientists [now] realize that this is getting down to a crisis situation” [Washington Post]. Since he became director of Lawrence Berkeley Lab in 2004 he has focused on making it a world leader in alternative energy research, spearheading research initiatives on solar energy and biofuels.
Obama is also expected to nominate Carol Browner, the EPA administrator under President Clinton, as the top White House official on climate and energy policy, and Lisa Jackson, who was until recently was New Jersey’s environmental protection chief, to head the EPA. Along with Chu, these people will be at the center of Obama administration’s energy and environment policy, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions growth and have energy efficiency play an important role in an expected economic stimulus package [CNET].
The U.S. Department of Energy is lobbying to expand the controversial plan to store nuclear waste inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, even as the entire project’s fate is thrown into uncertainty with the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s next president. The locally unpopular project has been repeatedly delayed due to lawsuits and safety concerns (the federal government originally promised to start accepting waste from nuclear power companies in 1998, but is now scheduled to open in 2020), and Obama has previously signaled that he might scrap the facility all together.
Yet recent statements by the Energy Department’s Edward Sproat underscored the urgency of finding some safe, final destination for the United States’ growing piles of nuclear waste. Sproat told Congress last week that the 77,000-ton limit Congress put on the capacity of the proposed Yucca waste dump will fall far short of what will be needed and has to be expanded, or another dump built elsewhere in the country…. He said within two years the amount of waste produced by the country’s 104 nuclear power plants plus defense waste will exceed 77,000 tons [AP]. Sproat suggested that Congress scrap the limit, or else empower the Department of Energy to search for another site for a secondary facility.
The controversial plan to store nuclear waste underground in a facility in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain reached another milestone today, as the Environmental Protection Agency issued limits for how much radiation people in the surrounding area could be exposed to–all the way from when the facility is scheduled to open, in 2020, until 1 million years in the future.
The EPA announced yesterday that to protect the hypothetical people living in Nevada 1 million years from now, the Yucca Mountain facility must be designed to ensure that people living near it then are exposed to no more than 100 millirems of radiation annually — equivalent to about a half-dozen X-rays. And over the next 10,000 years, radiation exposure to the waste dump’s neighbors may be no more than 15 millirems a year, which is about what people get from an ordinary X-ray [AP].
It’s been a big news week for nuclear waste, with most of the attention going to the Department of Energy’s announcement that it has at long last submitted an application to open a nuclear waste repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
After two decades of planning, the application nudges the project a little closer to reality, but there’s a long way to go yet. Nevada officials remain violently opposed to the “nuclear dump,” and lawsuits are inevitable. The Department of Energy says that the repository won’t be ready to open until 2020, at the earliest.
Meanwhile, in a laboratory in Tennessee, the Energy Department is trying to clean up an aging nuclear waste cache left over from the Cold War, only to have its own inspector general declared the waste a “national resource” because of its potential use in cancer treatments.